Beside the Point: Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Ignorance
A modest call to return to fact-based policy
In May 2010, the Texas State Board of Education dramatically revised curriculum standards for U.S. history and other social studies subjects, infusing textbooks with a right-wing-tilted rendition of events. The board grossly downplayed slavery and segregation while propping up biblical principles and religious influences on the nation's founding. They elevated conservative icons – framing Joseph McCarthy in a positive light – and marginalized minority figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. They overemphasized "states' rights" in lieu of slavery as a cause of the Civil War and failed to include the Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow laws; racial segregation is only briefly mentioned. Ignoring pleas from dozens of academics and scholars, the 15-member board effectively whitewashed history for the state's 5 million public school children and potentially millions of students nationwide, as the vast Texas textbook market often influences other states.
As a young reporter I watched on at the press desk as social conservatives crammed in a flurry of inaccurate and ideologically motivated revisions in the 11th hour without obstruction. Dumbfounded at the veritable massacre of truth, I received my first real taste of what can be described as "factless policymaking" – a trend so prevalent in Texas politics it often feels like the norm. While a conservative research institute slapped the board's textbooks with a failing grade, calling it a "politicized distortion of history" and "unteachable hodgepodge," the criticism did little to stop the printing presses – this fall, the political distortion will hit local ISDs, with Austin as no exception.
The books hold the potential to either overtly or subconsciously reinforce stereotypes and two-dimensional preconceived notions – and, worse, validate them. It seems now, more than in the recent past, a bone-chilling thought as political extremism and racial tensions – locally and nationwide – have reached new heights, teetering at a breaking point. It would follow that in the current climate we would make it an imperative to elucidate historical fact, explain the complexities of civil rights struggles, bring minority achievement to the forefront, and highlight the mistakes of our country's leaders as to not be destined to repeat them again. Most dangerously, the historical misinformation found in the pages will only serve to drive the next generation further from the truth; further from progress; and ultimately, further from humanity. A notion even more alarming when we consider that on the other end of the tainted lesson plan sit future elected representatives, judges, juries, and law enforcement officials that may one day hold our lives in the balance.
Similarly, factless policymaking took center stage with dire consequences during the 2013 Texas abortion law debates. Referred to as House Bill 2, the four-part law adds draconian rules to abortion access, leaving the procedure out of reach for the state's most vulnerable women. Its final regulation, which demands clinics spend millions for hospital-like building changes, would shutter all but eight clinics in the state. When presented with scientific evidence, statistics, peer-reviewed research papers, testimony from relevant, qualified physicians, and opposition from major mainstream medical organizations – all strongly cautioning the provisions are not only unnecessary but could very well threaten the health and safety of women – bill authors stunningly waved the facts away based on the belief that women would be safer adhering to the law. (Of course, as critics rightly point out, the ostensible goal of the law runs counter to its expected disastrous effect, leading those with a pulse to realize the legislation is truly meant to reduce abortion access under the thinly veiled guise of a safety measure.) Once again, I sat in the Capitol chambers pained and astounded as officials – despite unprecedented citizen opposition and a 13-hour filibuster – sped through a bill that could endanger women based on little else than conservative ideology. They produced no concrete examples of why the legislation was needed; no documented proof it would benefit women; no facts to back up a law that could leave women, now forced to trek long distances in unsafe conditions, injured, or worse, dead.
These limited examples don't start or end there. Take climate change; based on mountains of scientific demonstrable and documented evidence, politicians (including a certain District 6 local Council member) forcefully deny its existence at the expense of the planet and our health. Take relying on the fallacious theory of "trickle-down economics" and its damage to the country's middle and working classes. The list goes on, a basketful of cherry-picked facts that satisfy political and social dogma. Complicit in perpetuating the factless policymaking is the mainstream media's pattern of offering false equivalencies under the goal of objectivity. But providing equal (and equally credulous) coverage to both sides when one side bases their arguments on erroneous talking points is not honorable, it is irresponsible.
Here, after witnessing and reporting on several instances of truth disregarded to the detriment of our body politic, I offer a modest call for those in power to return to reason, to logic, to basing policy on sound science and fact. A call to heed our experts, those on the front lines of the issues we legislate, and those directly affected by the outcome. It is worth remembering that when we manipulate facts on the basis of personal ideology and omit the nuance we in turn create an alternate reality. And within that reality, negative consequences – whether it be the suffering of poor and minority women or early indoctrination that leads us to racist acts – need not exist.
"Point Austin" will return July 31.